Charles Dickens’ first ‘Christmas Book’, A Christmas Carol (1843), is well known. But during the 40s he wrote 5 Christmas Books in total, and the others are much less well known. Least read of all, perhaps, is the fourth, The Battle of Life (1846). This book is fascinating because nobody has anything good to say about it. In Ruth F. Glancy’s introduction to her edition of Christmas Books, Christmas Stories and Other Short Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography (1985), she announces that Battle is ‘with no argument at all, the most flawed and disliked’ of all Dickens’ works (p. xix). Not just the worst, but with no argument at all! In Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens (1990), he notes that the tale is ‘no longer widely read, and one which even at the time drew mainly unfavourable comment’ (p. 515). Even on the book’s Goodreads page, reactions are almost uniformly lukewarm. In short, it seems that nobody likes this book, despite it being written by the most adored English novelist of all. This in itself is intriguing, and, this being the Christmas season, the time was opportune for me to revisit Battle, which I had read years ago (knowing nothing of its reception; knowing only that, unlike Carol, I had never heard of this one), and had been singularly unimpressed by, immediately classing it as the worst Dickens I had read. I had forgotten virtually the whole thing, remembering only the impression, before my Yuletide re-reading of this week.
The book gains, of course, in intertextual interest for the reader who is familiar with Dickens’ works. Reading it now, my brain starts working on the connections with other Dickens works, the thematic and characterological resonances of better-known works. Battle looks both backwards and forwards. Like Carol, it has an element of personal re-awakening and transformation. The Scrooge equivalent is Dr Jeddler. Actually, though, he’s nowhere near as mean or vicious as Scrooge; his problem, rather, is that he is a philosopher:
Doctor Jeddler was, as I have said, a great philosopher, and the heart and mystery of his philosophy was, to look upon the world as a gigantic practical joke; as something too absurd to be considered seriously, by any rational man. His system of belief had been, in the beginning, part and parcel of the battle-ground on which he lived, as you shall presently understand.
The Doctor never dreamed of inquiring whether his children, or either of them, helped in any way to make the scheme a serious one. But then he was a Philosopher.
A kind and generous man by nature, he had stumbled, by chance, over that common Philosopher’s stone (much more easily discovered than the object of the alchemist’s researches), which sometimes trips up kind and generous men, and has the fatal property of turning gold to dross and every precious thing to poor account.
The degree of sarcasm Dickens injects into the word ‘philosopher’ in this work is striking. The entire book is basically a riposte to the Doctor’s attitude. Hence the title: life is a Battle; it’s not a joke. And of course I can’t help thinking of Carlyle here, and wondering if Dickens had been reading On Heroes in 1846:
It is a most earnest thing to be alive in this world; to die is not sport for a man. Man’s life never was a sport to him; it was a stern reality, altogether a serious matter to be alive!
Anyway, bearing in mind his predecessor, we know the Doctor is bound for a change of heart. But unlike Scrooge, Dr Jeddler is basically a secondary character, and this is not the emotional centre of the story. The Dr interests the Dickensian in pointing back to Scrooge and also in pointing forward to Gradgrind in Hard Times (1854) – also an essentially decent man whose mind has been warped by too much philosophy – but the essential interest of the tale is not centred on this character.
Rather it’s in the curious contrivance by which his daughters arrange their romantic lives. Dickens is here itching at a sore that was to resonate through much of his ensuing work: the ill-matched couple and the torment a poor match can create. The daughters of Dr J are beautiful, sweet and pure – stereotypical Dickens heroines; this book is perhaps inferior to Hard Times in that it never gets round to establishing a connection between the Dr’s philosophy and his daughter’s romantic issues, leaving them as separate themes not causally linked in the plot. The relative complexity of Louisa Gradgrind elevates Hard Times over Battle. One daughter, Marion, runs away from home and remains missing and believed eloped for six years so that her long-time betrothed, Alfred, can marry her sister, Grace, because she does not love him and she believes that Grace and Alfred love each other. And she’s right, they do, and they do marry, and she returns, and marries another man who she really loves – but not one whom she was already in love with at the time of the pseudo-elopement of course: that would have rendered her scheme self-serving and devious.
This plot contrivance sees Dickens bending over backwards to legitimise and heroize the rejection of a marriage that, though not unsuitable, doesn’t feel right. Marion is effectively married: she’s known Alfred since they were children, and she likes him, but without passion. Here again, Dickens was to take this a step further in Hard Times, when it’s post-marriage that the character in question discovers his need to get away – an even more difficult situation. In Battle, Dickens’ attempt to deal with it is unimpressive: he retreats into a fantastically melodramatic plot device an uses particularly one-dimensional characters. But there is a seriousness about this book, signalled in the title and perhaps drawing its energy from this element of the plot, so close to Dickens’ own situation: gone are the youthful high spirits, humour is mostly absent. In is an increased tendency to moralize and deliver sanctimony, which one might argue to be linked to Dickens’ guilt about his urges towards divorce; as Freud argued, it is from guilt and bad conscience that the super-ego draws its power. This tension between desires/ instincts and the super-ego/moralizing was to provide many interesting works in Dickens’ later career, but in this book the complexity is not yet there, and the high spirits are already souring. Hence, I can’t argue with Battle’s place in the Dickens canon: it’s not a good or interesting work in its own right. Oh, and there’s no real Christmas element, either, only a passing mention that a key scene is taking place at Christmas – but that’s not a happy scene, so the spirit of Christmas isn’t exactly alive and well in this tale.